A friendship sturdier than family ties. The desperate yearning of a mother for a son she abandoned and the hurt longing of the son for a mother he never knew. Violence, gangsters, the notion of justice and always, the haunting question – what is right and what is wrong? Who is good and who is evil? And threading together this memorable tapestry, a score by maestro Ilaiyaraaja which was so brilliant and expansive that it could include the thumping dance number Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu, which means Rakkamma, Clap Your Hands, and the plaintive, melodious Yamune Aatrile, which expresses Radha's longing for Krishna. Mani Ratnam's 1991 film Thalapathi has all this and more.
Thalapathi means commander in Tamil. Mani Ratnam, responsible for the story, screenplay, dialogue and direction, reimagines the story of Karna and Duryodhana in a small, unnamed town in Tamil Nadu. Surya, played by Rajnikanth, is the Karna figure and Devaraj, played by Mammootty, is Duryodhana. Shyam Benegal's superb Kalyug, which reimagines the Mahabharata in 1980s Bombay as a battle between two warring industrial families, was released a decade before Thalapathi but the films have little in common. Mani Ratnam's script stays away from the larger battle and instead focuses on the life of Karna, one of the Mahabharata's most noble and tragic figures, a good man on the wrong side.
Thalapathi begins with a black-and-white sequence of Surya's abandonment. It's Bhogi, the day before Pongal. People are discarding their old clothes and possessions. A teenage girl gives birth under a tree. Alone and afraid, she then leaves her son in a goods train. But even before the train is out of sight, she regrets her decision and runs after it but it is too late. Surya is eventually picked up by an elderly woman who raises him as her own. The first time colour seeps into the frame is when the baby is held up against the sun. This becomes a recurring motif. Surya, fathered by the sun god in the Mahabharata, is repeatedly framed against the sun. Even when mother and son eventually reunite, the sun's rays fill the room.
Surya, like the protagonists of many classic tales including Harry Potter, is an orphan. Or so he thinks. He grows up wondering why his mother so ruthlessly threw him away. Which is why when Devaraj takes him in, Surya becomes instantly indebted for life. When a rival, Kalivarathan, played by a nicely malevolent Amrish Puri, tempts Surya to switch sides, Surya replies: I'd rather die with him than live with you. Surya embodies loyalty but his generosity and large-heartedness is tainted by his actions.
Devaraj and Surya function as a parallel justice system, meting out punishment to those they deem fit. This includes brutal violence and murder. Even though they are only going after those who deserve it, the bloodshed eventually seeps into their lives. Surya loses the woman he loves, Devaraj, his unborn child and ultimately, his life. Their inherent goodness cannot wash away their sins. These skirmishes on the streets allude to a larger battle of good and evil and the all-controlling design of destiny. In one of the film's most poignant scenes, both Surya and his mother are praying at the local temple. He stands behind her and her husband who is aware that Surya is her long-lost son. They hear the sound of a train passing by and both mother and son involuntarily tear up. It's desperately sad.
The narrative of Thalapathi is driven by coincidences – Surya's half-brother Arjun, played by Arvind Swamy, is posted to the same town as a collector and naturally the two are pitted against each other. A little girl plays a key role in the mother recognising that Surya is her son. A scriptwriter today might dismiss the plot as too convenient but that would be missing the wood for the trees. Mani Ratnam stages the drama skilfully. The emotions are rich and layered. And the visuals – Santosh Sivan, working for the first time with Mani Ratnam – are striking. Note the aerial shots when the clashing dons meet or the way the camera frames its leading men in tight close-ups.
One of the great pleasures of Thalapathi is watching Rajinikanth and Mammootty play against each other. Both have towering personalities but neither here is serving a larger-than-life persona. The film doesn't pander to their stardom. Rajinikanth abandons his trademark mannerisms. Surya is, every inch, a hero but there is a scene in which he is weeping, bent over with pain. Both Surya and Devaraj are brutally beaten up by the police. These men are vulnerable and flawed. Which is what makes them so memorable.
There's also the beauteous Shobana as the Draupadi figure and Srividya who is superbly moving as Kalyani, Surya's beleaguered mother. The film doesn't give us Kalyani's backstory – the circumstances that led to her pregnancy at such a young age or who Surya's father is. Neither does it judge her for what happened. Instead, it presents, in all its heartache and splendour, the unshakable bond between a mother and her child.
Besides, Rajinikanth swivelling his hips in Rakkamma – with the steps choreographed by Mugur Sundar and his son, a young Prabhu Deva – is dazzling.
You can watch Thalapathi on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube.